email a friend iconprinter friendly iconLast Hours of the Iceman
Page [ 3 ] of 5

Archaeobotanists have used equally clever analyses of pollen and plant fragments to plot the Iceman's last movements. James Dickson of the University of Glasgow has identified no less than 80 distinct species of mosses and liverworts in, on, or near the Iceman's body. The most prominent moss, Neckera complanata, still grows at several sites in the valleys to the south, in some cases quite near known prehistoric sites. According to Dickson, a clot of stems found in the Iceman's possession suggests he was probably using the moss to wrap food, although other ancient peoples used similar mosses as toilet paper.

Taken together, the evidence strongly indicates that the Iceman's last journey began in the low-altitude deciduous forests to the south, in the springtime when the hop hornbeams were in bloom. But it may not have been a straight hike into the mountains. Oeggl has also found traces of pine pollen in the Iceman's digestive tract, both above and below the hornbeam pollen. This suggests that he may have climbed to a higher altitude where pine trees grow in mixed coniferous forests, then descended to the lower altitude of the hop hornbeams, and finally ascended again into the pine forests in his last day or two. Why? No one knows. But perhaps he wanted to avoid the steep, thickly wooded gorge of the lower Val Senales—especially if he was in a hurry.

When he reached a mountain pass now known as Tisenjoch, he likely paused to rest. He had completed a vertical climb of 6,500 feet (2,000 meters) from the valley below, and to the north faced a desolate, glacier-riven landscape. Perhaps the rocky hollow where he found himself offered some shelter from the wind. We do not know if his enemies caught up with him at that spot, or were waiting there in ambush for him to arrive. What we do know is that he never left that hollow alive.

In June 2001, Paul Gostner, director of the Department of Radiology at the Central Hospital in Bolzano, brought a portable x-ray machine to the Iceman's chamber. His intent was to prepare for a routine analysis of some broken ribs. The following day he dropped by the office of Eduard Egarter Vigl, director of the Institute of Pathology at the hospital and principal caretaker of the mummy, to report that the rib fractures were old and of limited interest.

"But I've found another thing that I can't explain," he said. "There is this strange extraneous object in the left shoulder." When he compared his recent x-rays (and CT scans taken three months earlier) of the Iceman's torso with earlier films taken by scientists in Innsbruck, Gostner managed to detect what his Austrian colleagues had missed: a dense triangular shadow smaller than a quarter and lodged beneath the Iceman's left shoulder blade. It turned out to be a stone arrowhead. This "casual discovery," as Egarter Vigl put it, instantly turned an inexplicable death more than 5,000 years ago into archaeology's most fascinating cold case.

Page [ 3 ] of 5